Melodically, Alison, by Elvis Costello, is a beautiful song. These days I’m not so sure about the narrator. I think misogynistic and controlling are the words I’m looking for. A little gas-light-y too. That said, it’s one of Elvis Costello’s best-known songs with good reason, and it’s worth taking a look at.
Alison is written in the Key of E. Chord Flow lays out those Chords like this:
And aligns them with their related major chords like this:
Even though Alison is in the key of E major, it doesn’t start on an E major chord. (No rule says a song has to begin on the same chord as the key it’s in). Starting on a different chord is like jumping into the middle of a story. It can take a moment to get your bearings, but that’s actually fun. It keeps things moving. Working with Chord Flow, you don’t need to know what key a song is in. It’s focused more on the relationships between chords. So the first two chords of the verse are A E.
These are chord flow neighbors and support the song’s first line: “It’s so funny to be seeing you after so long, girl.” It’s a simple statement that, like the chords, starts us in the middle of the action. The singer is running into someone he hasn’t seen in quite a while. Or does “so long” imply a more permanent goodbye in a relationship, the “so long, see you later” of a breakup? Either way, this encounter will be awkward at best.
The next line starts again with the A chord, goes a bit sideways into G#m, C#m, and finishes with B.
There are a couple of ways we could look at this progression. Firstly G#m and C#m are in the middle are Chord Flow Neighbors; they’re going to sound great together. The A to G#m follows the E major scale, walking down the scale one fret to G#.
C#m to B is also following the E major scale down.
That’s one way to look at all the chords Elvis squished together here. Another way is that both C#m and G#m are substitutes for an E major chord. They both share two notes in common with E.
- E is built with the notes E, G#, and B.
- C#m is built with the notes C#, E, and G#.
- G#m is built with the notes G#, B, and D#.
So an A G#m C#m is basically a substitute for an A E progression. In fact, the verses never return to the E chord again, instead substituting the G#m and C#m progression in E’s place. Hint: This is something you could do in your own songwriting.
There’s one more change to check out in the verses. The move from C#m to D. The D chord is a Chord Flow neighbor of A, so even though it isn’t in the key of E major, it sounds pretty good when used with chords from E major. Also, it’s one fret above the C#m chord, so we are getting to it by movement similar to the leading tone.
There’s a kind of sadness and wistfulness to the D chord here. That’s partly because of the melody and D’s relation to the key’s center, E.
The chorus follows the same pattern as the verses with one exception, the E chord returns! Alison’s name is drawn out over the A and E chords. Her name is a return home. That second line, “I know this world is killing you,” is unstable, placed over a variation on the chords from the verse.
The final line is important, and so are the chords it’s placed over. Through introduction, verse, and chorus, we don’t hear one of the most definitive chord changes in western music. The one that makes a musical idea feel complete. The move from the left neighbor of the key center to the key center. In this case, the B chord moving to the E chord. (This is a “V I” progression or “a cadence” in music theory terms; it’s the musical equivalent of putting a period at the end of a sentence).
We finally hear the B E progression over the words, “My Aim is True.” This is the most stable chord change in the entire song, and because it is, we can nearly take the cad singing at his word. It sounds plausible that his aim is true, or at the very least, we can believe that he believes his aim is true.
Should we trust the guy singing this song? Nope. Whoever Alison is, she’s gotten married and moved on from this guy, and here he comes calling her a slut in so many words and saying he still loves her in the same breath.
That said, songs from the perspective of jilted, unrequited lovers are a time-honored songwriting tradition. (They get written by men and women). Elvis Costello’s Alison is probably one of the best ever written.
New to Chord Flow?
The Next Fearless Challenge begins Sunday, Novemver, 6th